Saturday, January 11, 2014

Editorial: Learn From History

If, as the French poet Baudelaire once wrote, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick that plutocrats ever pulled was to convince working people they cared about the working class’s best interests.

And, to paraphrase Santayana, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to vote Republican. Those who fail to learn from economics become senior fellows at the Heritage Institute and pontificate on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Seventy years ago, on Jan. 11, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of World War II, laid out to Congress his vision for an Economic Bill of Rights that would establish an American standard of living higher than ever before.

“We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure,” Roosevelt said.

He proposed “a second Bill of Rights,” which would assure, among other things, the right to a job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing, recreation and a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and the right to a good education.

Roosevelt died 15 months later, before he could solidify the rights established in his New Deal. He had gotten Congress to approve many reforms such as the Social Security Act of 1935, which supported retirees. lifting many of them out of poverty; creation of federal agencies such as the Works Progress Administration that gave jobs to eight million unemployed people during the Great Depression; labor laws established the right of workers to organize into unions; a price-support system kept farmers on the land; a federal minimum wage was a step toward a living wage; banks and the stock market were regulated; bank deposits were insured; antitrust laws were tightened; the GI Bill of Rights provided education, housing, job training and other benefits for millions of veterans returning from World War II; and tax rates increased to 94% for the wealthiest individuals to help pay for it.

Since then the plutocrats have worked tirelessly to rescind many of the reforms of the New Deal that helped create the middle class. Republicans regained control of Congress in 1947 and passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted the rights of unions to organize and conduct strikes, over President Harry Truman’s veto. Congress reduced the top marginal tax rate to 91% during the postwar economic boom of the 1950s. That tax rate not only paid the bills but also encouraged the rich to plow profits back in their businesses, which created more good-paying jobs.

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty and took advantage of a Democratic landslide in the 1964 elections to make another run at implementing Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights. His Great Society programs addressed civil rights, consumer protection, education, the environment, housing, medical care, urban problems, rural development and transportation. The laws included the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act and establishment of Medicare and Medicaid.

Johnson also agreed to reduce the top tax rate from 91% to 70%. That’s where the rates largely stayed until Ronald Reagan agreed with Congress in 1982 to reduce the top individual rate to 50% — and further to 28% in 1988.

In Bill Clinton’s first year in the White House, Democrats increased the top rate to 39.6% for the top 1.2% of wage earners and cut taxes for small businesses and the poor. The budget passed without a single Republican vote as GOP leaders predicted the tax increase would plunge the nation further into a recession. “This is the Democrat machine’s recession, and each one of them will be held personally accountable,” Rep. Newt Gincrich, who has a Ph.D. in history, said. Rep. Dick Armey, who has a Ph.D. in economics, predicted, “The banks will fail. Clinton’s plans will only worsen the recession.” Sen. Phil Gramm, who also has a Ph.D. in economics, agreed: “Clinton’s pie-in-the-sky fantasies will crash our economy.”

Instead, of course, the economy boomed in the Clinton years. The unemployment rate achieved a 30-year low of 3.9% in April 2000. The higher tax rates balanced the budget from 1998 through 2001, when he turned over a $128 billion surplus to new President George W. Bush in fiscal 2001. Then Bush cut the tax rates, which plunged the budget back into the red, and he gutted regulatory agencies. The free market finally got a chance to regulate itself, which allowed financial excesses that resulted in the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the Great Recession. The rich got richer — the government bailed out the banks that had bet on derivatives schemes — while the ground crumbled under the middle class. And the plutocrats managed to get embittered working-class whites to blame minorities and President Obama for their hard times.

Republicans are claiming that the War on Poverty was a failure, but census figures show the Great Society helped to reduce the poverty rate from 19.5% in 1963 when Johnson became president to 12.1% in 1969, when Richard Nixon became president. Poverty bottomed at 11.1% under Nixon in 1973 and climbed back to 15.2% in 1983 as Ronald Reagan dismantled many of the Great Society welfare programs. The poverty rate under Clinton dropped from 15.1% in 1993 to 11.7% in 2001, when George W. Bush took over. Poverty increased to 14.3% in 2009, when Obama became president. It now stands at 15%, with 46 million Americans living in poverty.

Corporate profits have returned and Wall Street has boomed under Obama but despite 46 straight months of private-sector job growth, creating more than 8 million jobs, the unemployment rate remains around 7% as 12 million people are still looking for work. But Republicans have insisted on budget cuts at the state and federal level that have resulted in layoffs of 728,000 government employees. Republicans in Congress also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits that expired Dec. 28 for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, which puts a further drag on economic growth. Because Republicans never learn.

End the War on Weed

Colorado has taken the first step toward demilitarizing the war on marijuana as the state has authorized selected dealers to sell as much as an ounce of cannabis to state residents and one fourth of an ounce to tourists. Washington state is planning to authorize marijuana sales this spring. Since 1970 federal authorities have claimed the authority to ban the sale or possession of marijuana as a dangerous “Schedule I” drug in the same class as heroin, LSD and methaqualone with, among other things, “no currently accepted medical use,” which is nonsense. Under Attorney General Eric Holder the Department of Justice has agreed to look the other way for what amounts to an experiment.

In addition to the revenue, legalization of marijuana could undermine Mexican cartels, which get an estimated 60% of their revenue from pot. And making marijuana available in regulated shops, similar to liquor stores, would cut the link between casual users and underworld dealers, who might push more dangerous drugs.

Democrats might as well embrace the legalization of marijuana. Polls show younger voters are more supportive of relaxing marijuana laws than older voters who are more likely to vote Republican anyway. In Texas, where it’s been 20 years since Democrats won a statewide race, Kinky Friedman, a country singer-songwriter, humorist and novelist, is running for Texas agriculture commissioner as a “Blue Dog” Democrat, on the platform of legalizing marijuana. He said it could save the state $215 million annually in enforcement costs, as well as the cost of holding 74,000 non-violent prisoners, when the state could be generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. His primary opponents are two little-known farmers who want nothing to do with the marijuana debate. Any of them would be better than the likely Republican. But for Kinky, on his third try for statewide office, legalizing weed is worth a try. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014
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Selections from the February 1, 2014 issue

Friday, January 10, 2014

Christie forgets to apologize for creating atmosphere in which staff would consider political tricks

By Marc Jampole

We should give New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the benefit of the doubt and assume that he told the absolute truth.  He did not know members of his staff ordered the closing of a lane leading onto to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution.  When he asked about the lane closing, two members of his staff lied to him.

In his “mea culpa” news conference, New Jersey Governor Chris Christies sounded as sincere and honest as a human can appear.

But he also spoke with cunning and extreme care.

Throughout the news conference, Christie carefully parsed words and redirected questions—all with his refreshing brand of straight-talk—to avoid the topic of whether he practices political retribution. His focus was solely on the sheer stupidity of the action and the fact that people lied to him. He berated himself for creating an organizational culture in which staff members thought they could lie to him. He never addressed his role in creating a culture in which retribution was condoned and encouraged. When asked specifically about retribution against the Ft. Lee mayor, he did not speak about retribution but about the fact that he hardly knew the man. He did not deny he practiced retribution, instead suggesting that you only commit dirty tricks on someone who you know.  True enough, but it slides right over the question of whether Christie believes in dirty tricks.

Christie’s avoidance of the retribution issue reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s comments about his sexting when he first announced he was running for mayor. He said that there might be other instances revealed, but he did so in passing and parenthetically, almost hypothetically, so that it was completely ignored at the time. Weiner was deceptive in his honesty, just as Christie is. I might even say that Christie “pulled a Weiner,” but the image is just too grotesque.

The news media passed over the Weiner comment, which led to their collective shock when the next scandal involving Weiner’s electronic sexual practices popped up.  The efforts of Democrats to place the media focus on Christie’s culture of retribution is having only limited success, at least at this point. 

That someone in an organization would think that it was just business as usual to create a safety hazard and mess with the lives of tens of thousands of people is, as the Latins liked to say, res ipsa loquitur, a thing that proves itself. Either it was Christie’s habit to condone retribution or two key staff members he had known for years had somehow managed to hide a rare and malevolent stupidity from their boss and everyone else.  Christie doesn’t strike me as socially or politically dense.  His past in what many journalists are calling “rough and tumble” Morris county politics and known scandals involving others close to Christie build the case that the politics of retribution thrived in his Administration.

Bridgegate will not sink Christie’s hopes for national office. No one seriously thinks that a man this poised and clever would approve shutting down access to the most travelled bridge in the world for trivial revenge. But the news media will now go on an aggressive hunt to find other instances of Christie or his cronies using dirty tricks for political purposes. Other scandals will emerge—and it’s very possible that none will approach the notoriety of Bridgegate. But the accumulation of these past tits and tats may very well sink Christie.

Or they may enhance his status among Republicans, who seem to like dirty tricks and political pranks. It was a Republican, Andrew Breitbart, who did Fascist-style video editing to make it appear as if a minor Obama Administration official uttered racist comments. And another Republican pretended to be a pimp and asked staff at multiple ACORN offices for help getting government loans until he found someone who appeared—on the video—to take him seriously. What if not a dirty trick was the swift-boat smearing of decorated war hero John Kerry and saying he didn’t really deserve his many medals? The pain Christie officials inflicted on commuters for four relatively balmy September days is nothing compared to the suffering resulting from the dirty trick of getting Iran to keep the American hostages until after the 1980 presidential election in return for surreptitiously supplying it with weapons.

Come to think of it, Bridgegate may have raised Christie’s esteem in the eyes of many Republican political operatives and elected officials. It confirms that he has the “cojones” to do what it takes. Sincerely.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Is reason conservatives don’t want legalized pot because as an illegal industry, it’s an unregulated free market?

By Marc Jampole

I’m about to perform a feat of rhetorical daring and originality: I’m going to proffer a written opinion about the legalization of marijuana without sharing my experiences or lack of experiences with the drug.

It seems as if virtually every pundit has to share his or her smoking history when offering an opinion or a prediction. It was started earlier this week by New York Times columnist and National Public Radio commentator David Brooks, who always looks to me as if he has indulged in the munchies a bit too often (and I mean that in a nice way!). His rationale for keeping recreational use of pot illegal is short on facts and reasoning, focusing instead on the experience of his group of friends—his clique as he calls it. They all smoked it and then moved on to their lives' work, except—in the anti-intellectual fashion of all great American myths—the one friend who was “the smartest of us,” who Brooks hints may have been destroyed by the devil weed.  It’s this one neat detail that makes me wonder about the absolute veracity of Brooks’ narrative. 

Since Brooks’ column, the Internet is reeking with reefer confessions. Joe Coscarelli, for example, excerpts from seven opinion writers who cop to blowing weed. 

It’s a continuation of the ever-growing trend of the non-fiction writer to put himself or herself into the center of a non-fiction article. As an occasional rhetorical device, making one’s reactions or personal history part of an article can evoke emotions, illuminate a theme or support an assertion. But it seems as if every other feature article now features and often begins with a long session of authorial navel-gazing: an anecdote about the writer’s own experience deep sea fishing for zebra bones or the sexual excitement she felt meeting the world’s oldest professional throat singer or how learning about the repeated torture of a preteen reminded him of the fear he felt the first time he went to the dentist. Regrettably, putting the self into every article is taught at all the finer universities. Instead of turning out creative writers, our English departments have produced a generation of hacks who depend on a single rhetorical device to spice up the facts and analysis.

Of course, Brooks is entitled to his opinion, as are all those opposed to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. And it makes absolute sense that most of the vocal opponents of legalization are conservative. From restricting access to abortion to wanting to introduce religion into science education, social conservatives tend to want to control the private lives of citizens and keeping pot illegal certainly does that. Meanwhile, economic conservatives don’t want any control on the free market, and legalization always brings control—taxation, standards setting, workplace safety.

It’s ironic, but keeping pot illegal makes it an absolutely deregulated commodity.  And we can see what happens in this free market: Much of it is controlled by violent cartels. The relationship between quality and price varies significantly not just from market to market, but from sale to sale.  Buyers have no idea what they’re getting or the conditions under which it was grown and processed. Transport and distribution uses public infrastructure without paying for it, throwing part of the burden of paying for their economic transaction onto everyone’s back. 

Now that we’re talking about it, the market for illegal drugs makes a wonderful case for government regulation of the free market.

Brooks and other opponents to the legalization of marijuana line up on the wrong side of history. Remember that the United States prohibited alcohol drinking for 13 years in the early part of the 20th century. And abortion was banned for about a century, a victim to the American Medical Association’s war against midwives (see Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine). Almost a century later, senseless restrictions on how adults behave in their private lives are falling left and right: gambling, gay marriage and now pot smoking. All come with regulations, as we can see with the greater regulation of cigarette smoking. I imagine that it will never be legal to toke up in a restaurant or movie theatre. And that’s how it should be. The government should refrain from restricting private actions, even as it intervenes in public actions and interactions, including the sale and purchase of goods and services in the marketplace.